It’s one of the more glamorous stories of the Cape Fear coast: The glamorous Confederate spy is riding a blockade runner back into Wilmington. Her ship runs aground and she drowns in the Atlantic — weighed down by treasure sewn in the linings of her gown.
That legend is almost true — sort of, according to a historian at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
“I kind of hate to bust people’s bubbles,” said Chris Fonvielle, a UNCW associate professor.
The spy was Rose O’Neale Greenhow, widow of a minor Washington bureaucrat and a sometime diplomat.
An ardent Southern sympathizer — she had tended S.C. Sen. John C. Calhoun at his deathbed — Greenhow remained in the Union capital after the Civil War broke out, using her social connections to strike up conversations with lonely officers. She then smuggled secrets to Richmond. President Jefferson Davis later credited her intelligence with the Confederate victory in the first battle of Bull Run (Manassas).
Eventually caught, Greenhow was imprisoned for a time in Washington’s Old Capitol Prison, then banished to the Confederacy. In August 1863, she slipped out of Wilmington on the blockade runner Phantom and made her way to Europe, where she engaged in a diplomatic mission and promoted support for the Confederate cause. Received by Queen Victoria and by Napoleon III of France, she even became engaged to a British earl.
In September 1864, Greenhow set out to return to the Confederacy aboard the Condor, a British blockade runner on its maiden voyage. Arriving near New Inlet and Fort Fisher before sunrise on Oct. 1, the Condor was pursued and fired upon by the Union steamer USS Niphon. Soon, the Condor ran aground a few hundred yards off Fort Fisher while Captain William N.H. Hewlett tried to dodge the wreck of another blockade runner.
Hewlett thought he could float the Condor on the next high tide, but Greenhow, fearing capture, begged to be rowed ashore. Eventually, Hewlett lowered a lifeboat, but it was capsized in rough waters. The crew and the rest of the passengers clung to the sides of the dinghy and made it ashore, but Greenhow was missing. Searchers from Fort Fisher found her corpse in the surf later that day.
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